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Large hearing on workplace discrimination bill in Nebraska

Large hearing on workplace discrimination bill in Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Supporters of a bill that aims to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Nebraska residents from discrimination in the workplace packed a hearing room at the state Capitol Wednesday to urge a legislative committee to approve the measure.

It’s the fourth time in as many years that Nebraska lawmakers have considered adding sexual orientation and gender identity to protected classes that include race, age, religion and marital status. Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said he intends to keep pushing the measure every year that he’s in the Legislature.

“No one should be fired for who they are or who they love, but rather based on the quality of their work,” Morfeld said. “That is fairness, and that is the Nebraska Way.”

The Judiciary Committee, which Morfeld serves on, is likely to send the measure to the whole Legislature. However, the bill is unlikely to advance in the conservative-dominated Legislature, and Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes it.

More than 70 percent of Nebraska residents support expanding protections from workplace discrimination to LGBT employees, according to a survey of state residents analyzed by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologists.

But Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and a former state senator says discrimination is present in Nebraska.

“It is harmful and it hurts us all,” she said.

Lincoln resident Lucas Peterson told the committee he’s been fired for being gay. The first time it happened, his employer told him he couldn’t condone his “immoral behavior,” words Peterson said he can’t forget 13 years later.

“Every time this bill gets knocked down, it makes it so much harder for me to justify living here,” he said. “It’s a very clear picture. If you’re not heterosexual, Caucasian, religious, maybe even conservative, you’re not welcome in this state.”

Private businesses in Nebraska have created their own equal opportunity employment guidelines that include sexual orientation and gender identity, and the city of Omaha has an ordinance prohibiting employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

At least 22 states and the District of Columbia outlaw workplace discrimination for sexual orientation, gender identity or both. Neighboring Iowa and Colorado are among those states, and Victoria Grave-Cunningham of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce told the committee Nebraska’s lack of a law makes competition for talented workers tough.

“We hear feedback constantly about those who are averse to moving to Nebraska because the state doesn’t support them and welcome that personal trait of theirs,” she said.

Billie Grant told the committee she had just moved from Colorado to Omaha to work as a camp facilitator several years ago when she casually described herself as queer at a new job orientation. Her supervisor told her she should have disclosed her sexuality in her interview and that her employer would have reconsidered her position if she had.

Grant said she now comes out in every job interview. Potential employers have responded by telling her they’ll pray for her or inviting her to church, she said.

“My skills are not seen, my convictions are not seen, only my sexuality,” Grant said.

Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings said he was concerned the bill would allow gay employees fired for cause to sue their employers, even when the employers didn’t know they were gay.

“Do not fire someone solely because they are gay, and there will be no viable legal claim against you,” Morfeld said.

Opponents of the bill argued it would create special rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, who aren’t considered a protected class under current state law.

Adding sexual orientation and gender identity to protected classes that include race creates a false narrative, said Jonathan Alexandre of the social conservative advocacy group Liberty Counsel. He said as a black man, he was offended by the idea civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people could be compared to civil rights for black Americans.

“No man who expresses himself as a female has ever been forced to drink out of a transgender water fountain,” Alexandre said. “No woman who believes she’s a man has ever been forced to sit in the transgender back of the bus.”

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